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Obama extends hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners of gays
"In its current political context, President Obama's memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group," said Peter S. Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. He said that his organization does not object to gays giving their partners power of attorney but that it questions Obama's motives.
"The memorandum undermines the definition of marriage," he said.
Obama's memo to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius orders the development of new rules to ensure that hospitals "respect the rights of patients to designate visitors" and to choose the people who will make medical decisions on their behalf.
The action has the potential to increase conflicts between family members, same-sex partners and hospital staff over end-of-life decisions.
A spokesman for the American Hospital Association did not return calls and e-mails. Efforts to reach a spokesman for the Catholic Health Association of the United States were unsuccessful.
In the memo, Obama said hospitals should not be able to deny visitation privileges on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay," he wrote.
Affected, he said, are "gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."
Officials said Obama had been moved by the story of a lesbian couple in Florida, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, who were kept apart when Pond collapsed of a cerebral aneurysm in February 2007, dying hours later at a hospital without her partner and children by her side.
Obama called Langbehn on Thursday evening from Air Force One as he flew to Miami, White House officials said. In an interview, Langbehn praised the president for his actions.
"I kept saying it's not a gay right to hold someone's hand when they die, its a human right," she said, noting that she and Pond had been partners for almost 18 years. "Now to have the president call up and say he agrees with me, it's pretty amazing, and very humbling."
The new rules will not apply only to gays. They also will affect widows and widowers who have been unable to receive visits from a friend or companion. And they would allow members of some religious orders to designate someone other than a family member to make medical decisions.
But it is clear that the document focuses on gays. A number of areas remain in which federal law requires proof of marriage, including receiving Social Security benefits and in taxes.
"The General Accounting Office has identified 1,138 instances in federal law where marriage is important," said one gay rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the White House formally announced the directive. "We've knocked off one of them."